Found in parts of southeast Texas, red wolves have captivated biologists and animal lovers alike with their unique characteristics. Despite ongoing challenges, there is hope for preserving this beautiful creature’s legacy as increased awareness and conservation efforts have been made to protect them from extinction.
In this article, we’ll explore the importance the red wolf population in Texas has played in the survival of the red wolf population, the history of the species in Texas, and ongoing conservation efforts.
Are There Red Wolves in Texas?
Yes, but the only red wolves currently living in Texas live in captivity, not in the wild. The last wild red wolf in Texas was captured in 1973 to be used in the Red Wolf Recovery Program, a captive breeding program with the long-term goal of re-introducing wolves into the wild.
What Types of Wolves Live in Texas?
The only other wolf native to Texas, the gray wolf, is commonly seen in northern regions of the state and along the Red River Valley. However, they have also been spotted sporadically in West Texas as well.
Living in packs, these wolves usually hunt larger animals such as deer or elk but also hunt smaller rodents for meals too. Since they are crepuscular beings, dusk is when you’ll find them out hunting.
What States Have Red Wolves?
Once common throughout the entire southeastern United States, red wolves had a historical range reaching from Texas to southern Pennsylvania. Today, only an isolated population of red wolves in North Carolina of around 19-21 total remain.
In 1973, the red wolf was declared an endangered species, and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) began a captive breeding program in order to protect and restore its population. In 1987, USFWS released four pairs of red wolves into northeastern North Carolina, where they have been successfully reintroduced.
North Carolina is the only state with a wild red wolf population. However, 23 states currently have red wolves in captivity across 44 zoological parks and wildlife centers.
How Can You Tell a Red Wolf from a Coyote?
The most distinguishing feature of a red wolf is its size; it is significantly larger than a coyote. An adult red wolf typically stands 25-30 inches tall at the shoulder, while an average adult coyote stands 20-24 inches in height. Additionally, red wolves weigh 50-80 pounds on average, while coyotes tend to weigh 25-50 pounds.
Other physical characteristics that differ between red wolves and coyotes include the shape of their ears, muzzle, and tail. Red wolves have very large ears in comparison to their head size and a pointed muzzle designed for better scenting ability.
The tail is usually carried low when running or walking, rather than curved over the back like a coyote’s. Furthermore, the long, reddish fur of a red wolf, complete with black patches on its legs and muzzle, is distinctive from the thick gray-brown fur of a coyote.
Finally, red wolves can be identified by their unique calls and vocalizations. They produce a high-pitched chirping sound, and male red wolves will sometimes howl in sequence with other pack members. Coyotes, on the other hand, are known for their distinctive yipping and barking sounds.
When Was the Last Red Wolf Sighting in Texas?
The last recorded sighting of a red wolf in Texas was in 1970 when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Department extirpated any remaining red wolves living in Texas from the wild so that they could be bred in captivity.This was a long process that started by trapping hundreds of potential wolves and narrowing down which of the captured animals were pure red wolves that hadn’t been tainted by coyote genes at least twice.
They were left with just 17 animals, 14 of which would form breeding pairs that would give rise to any future pure red wolves. The population of red wolves had been declining for several decades before this extirpation due to hunting and persecution by farmers who viewed them as only predators of livestock, rather than seeing the value that red wolves bring to their ecosystems at large.
However, since the early 20th century, the red wolf has been largely absent from its former range in Texas, pushed to coastal areas like Beaumont and Galveston as they were pushed closer to extinction.
Are Wolves Going to Be Reintroduced to Texas?
While there have been rumors at times of re-introduction efforts of red wolves in Texas, it has never been attempted. Captive breeding centers like the Fossil Rim Wildlife Center have worked with efforts in North Carolina to restore red wolves to the wild, but they have not released any red wolves in Texas.
The main concern is that the historical range of the red wolf along the Gulf Coast of Texas is now an area that is too overpopulated for red wolves to be able to survive. The reintroduction of red wolves in Texas is also limited by the lack of suitable habitat. The coastal marshlands that were once home to red wolves are now largely converted into agricultural or urban land.
Additionally, there are few large enough areas of uninhabited land to provide a safe haven for the predators, who like their solitude. Red wolves historically prefer wetlands and forests, but these are now harder to come by than they were 50 years ago.
Are Ghost Wolves Related to Red Wolves?
Ghost wolves are a red wolf/coyote hybrid that is found on Galveston Island in Texas. Closely resembling coyotes, these so-called “ghost wolves” have DNA that is up to 70% red wolf- unheard of in any other coyote. This representation of red wolf DNA in ghost wolves is likely due to the fact that Galveston Island was one of the last places red wolves lived before being killed off or taken into captivity.
Scientists believe these ghost wolves, named because of the genetic material they carry that is absent in present-day red wolves, may be the key to ensuring the survival of red wolf populations. Only 14 breeding pairs are responsible for the entire red wolf population, in the wild and in captivity.
This makes the genetic diversity of the present-day red wolf sorely lacking- and ghost wolves could contribute genetic diversity to the present-day red wolf population with the different red wolf genes they carry. The “how” isn’t clear yet, but the presence of genetic material of historical red wolves is an encouraging sign for the future of the red wolf population.
The Legacy of Red Wolves in Texas
A historically important animal in the Texas ecosystem, the red wolf is absent from Texas and it is unlikely that it will be re-introduced. Red wolves in Texas have contributed to the continuation of the red wolf population today and may have left behind the key to the survival of the present-day red wolf population in their hybrid descendants. The red wolf may never be restored to its former range in Texas, but we can still appreciate their contributions.